Facing Keith Jarrett, by Jonathan L. Segal
In March of 2018, Keith Jarrett disappeared. Keith (Jazzers sometimes call the greats by their first name as a tribute to how intimately they have influenced our lives. One frequently refers to Miles Davis as “Miles”, but John Coltrane, interestingly enough, more likely as “Coltrane” or “Trane” rather than “John.”) In any case, Keith seemed to drop off the face of the Earth. I had a ticket for his Carnegie hall concert. It was cancelled for “health reasons.” And then the news went silent until this past week (late October 2020) when the NY Times reported that Keith had had two strokes. One in March 2017 and another the following May. His left side was paralyzed, he was institutionalized, and as of this writing is working hard to recover and has almost made it to walking with a cane. He may never perform again, and his ability to ever play again at all is in question. I still have the ticket from the cancelled concert. I first heard Keith’s solo album “Facing You”, which was released in 1971. Soon after, I saw his quartet play in a 400-seat venue at my college. I was amazed at his technique and endless pool of musical ideas, but I didn’t enjoy the music. It was a new jazz animal that didn’t resonate with me. It was violent, often atonal, and close to “Free jazz” in a style not unrelated to Ornette Coleman. I left before the performance ended. I had been expecting the lyricism of “Facing You”, and Keith couldn’t have cared less what I was expecting. Thus began a lifetime of listening to Keith Jarrett generally surprising my ears and expectations. Hoping for him to play whatever I might want him to play was like corralling cats. Wasn’t gonna happen unless he felt like it. Late in life I’ve learned that if I want to hear that, I should try to play it myself.
If you haven’t listened to Keith’s music, or if you have only listened to a bit of it, you haven’t heard the wild spectrum of sonic possibilities that have come from this man’s hands. He can play three notes that make you cry from the beauty of it, or he can draw you into a long trance of minimalist patterns, or play funky gospel blues that will make you want to stand up and shout, or play Jarretified bebop that will swing as hard as anything Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie cooked up, or he can play music that almost defies description, drawing on elements that might loosely resemble Chopin, Ives, Hindemith, and Cecil Taylor. Really, it’s a shame to talk about his music at all, as it is often a shame to talk about any music. Because words are not music, no matter how many academics hold hands on the head of a pin.
Over the years I saw him play with Miles Davis band, which then also included Chick Corea, and I have seen his Standards Trio many times. I have also seen many of his legendary completely improvised solo concerts, often at Avery Fisher Hall or Carnegie Hall in New York City. Somewhere along the way I saw him close up at New York’s Village Vanguard, the classic smoky basement club with the wall shaking from the subway rumbling through just a few feet away. I’ve also collected an endless pile of LP records, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, MP3s, Youtube links and even a 45rpm record of his version of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, made popular by the Byrds. One time I contacted his manager George Avakian, went up to his office, and was given some rarities, including the LP “Restoration Ruin”, which consists of Keith singing self-penned songs and multi-tracking a variety of instruments. My very personal memory is that somehow in the late 1970s I got hold of his home phone number. I called him up completely out of the blue. He didn’t know me, he was already a major star in jazz, and he could have hung up the phone. But he didn’t. He spoke with me about music for about forty-five minutes, and entertained the idea of my taking the train out to his rural Jersey home for piano lessons. I had very little money, and when he told me “We might not play the piano, we might just talk”, I knew that I couldn’t go. Of course looking back I wish I had, but so be it. I remember fondly that for a performer with a positively ornery reputation, he was generous with his time to a young musician. Thanks Keith.
Anyone who has seen him perform knows that besides the incredible music, you’re going to be along for a ride with his personality. He has been known, (no, actually he has frequently been known) to become irked by any audience behavior that interferes with his musical flow. God forbid someone coughs. He might stop playing the most mystically satisfying reverie, walk up to the microphone, and say, “Okay, everybody cough.” The crowd might be shocked that he has stopped playing and nervous laughter might ensue, followed by everyone coughing. Then he’s back to the piano and you had better not cough again. Once at Carnegie Hall, I had a cold and a bad cough, and I was ready to suffocate to not cough out loud from my fifth row seat, and I was really terrified that I would be the sole object of the master’s wrath, when a kind lady handed me chewing gum, after which I made it through without coughing.
If Keith or his band members see a red light in the balcony from someone surreptitiously filming with their cell phone, they will stop playing, stand up, and possibly curse at the offender. The comedy/drama of these theatrically charged moments are almost worth the price of admission.
I can very easily name dozens of great jazz pianists (and other jazz instrumentalists and singers) who have influenced my piano playing. Perhaps hundreds of pianists. And I can tell you specifically what I learned from each one and what I incorporated into my playing as well as I could. I have learned ideas and styles from Oscar Peterson and Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans and so many more. They are all great at what they do. Why is Keith Jarrett the pianist who has affected me the most? His phrasing, his melodic shapes, and his touch on the keyboard are all soul-piercing. I am most emotionally moved by his playing. There are many hours of recordings of his that I don’t respond to or just plain dislike. But it’s like Babe Ruth. He is known for his home runs, but he was also known as “the Strike out King”. But it’s the hits we remember. Keith would possibly say that they were all hits, but every artist is entitled to feel however they want to about their own work. Here's wishing Keith a good healing, and a future making more music.